Prime Minister David Cameron and opposition leader Ed Miliband face their one and only live television debate of the election campaign on Thursday (2 April), along with five others, in a seven-way contest.
With exactly five weeks to go until the 7 May vote, opinion polls suggest it remains too close to call, although one of the two men will be taking the keys to Downing Street.
The two-hour debate will see Cameron and the Labour chief share a panel with the leaders of the Liberal Democrats — who share power in the coalition government — the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Greens, the Scottish National Party, and Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru.
Neither Cameron’s Conservatives nor Miliband’s Labour look able yet to win a majority in the House of Commons, raising the prospect of another coalition, or a minority government.
With an eye on holding the balance of power, the other party leaders will use Thursday’s debate in Manchester to try to raise their profiles.
In the 2010 election, when television debates took place for the first time, Liberal Democrats head Nick Clegg’s performance sent his party’s ratings soaring — although it is now bracing to lose half its seats next month.
Each leader will be given one minute to answer the question put to them before a studio audience, followed by a debate, with four major issues expected to be addressed.
After Cameron refused to take part in a head-to-head battle with Miliband, it will be the Labour leader’s only opportunity to press the premier.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage, whose anti-European Union, anti-immigration message has won over many disaffected Conservatives voters, as well as the extreme right, will also be challenging him.
The blunt speaking MEP has been preparing “rigorously” for the debate, his campaign chief Patrick O’Flynn said. “Obviously this will be the only chance he gets to be on the same stage as David Cameron,” O’Flynn said.
Cameron will be separated from both Miliband and Farage on the panel by Welsh nationalist leader Leanne Wood and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon. Green Party leader Nathalie Bennett, along with Clegg, complete the lineup.
The debate is one of four such events during the campaign, the first of which took place last week with Cameron and Miliband appearing one after the other to be quizzed in front of a live studio audience.
Leaders of the main opposition parties — Labour, the SNP, UKIP, the Greens and Welsh nationalists — will take part in another debate on 16 April.
One week before polling day, on 30 April, Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will also separately submit to a televised grilling.